Survey of Regional Prehistory: Egypt and the Near East
V14.0216
Professor R. Wright


Chronology


Papyrus plants.


Below is the chronology that will be used for this class. You should pay close attention to exact dates and the names of the time periods (e.g. Uruk) because you will have to know both the names and the dates when you refer to them in your written papers and exams.


MESOPOTAMIA:

PeriodDates
Uruk (Early /Middle)3600 to 3300 BC
Protoliterate (Late Uruk and Jemdet Nasr)3300 to 2900 BC
Early Dynastic (I, II, III)2900 to 2350 BC
Akkadian2350 to 2170 BC
Ur III2112 to 2004 BC


EGYPT:

PeriodDates
Late Predynastic3200 to 3100 BC
Early Dynastic
Dynasties I & II3100 to 2700 BC
Old Kingdom
Dynasties III - VI2700 to 2180 BC
First Intermediate2180 to 2050 BC


DISCUSSION:

The chronologies above were created through a complex process which combines the determination of dates and the study of the context of objects. Unlike today when we can look at a calendar and a clock and tell each other when an event happened, archaeologists must piece together bits of data to construct a "calendar" for the past. The dates given above are derived from a number of archaeological and historical sources. There are two types of dates in archaeology--relative and absolute. Relative dates only mean that one object or set of objects is older or younger than another because of its stratigraphic position in the ground. For instance, if an object is found a meter below another when excavated, it is assumed to be older since it was deposited first.



Absolute dates are derived through scientific analysis of artifacts themselves, providing the age of the object. The most common type of absolute dating in Mesopotamia and Egypt is radiocarbon or carbon 14 dating. In this type of dating, the amount of radioactive carbon in an object is measured. As an object ages, the amount of radioactive carbon decreases at a known rate. Therefore, the amount of carbon 14 remaining can be used to determine the age of an object. This age is subtracted from the present date yielding an absolute date for the object and those closely associated with it. However, radiocarbon dates are only exact within a range of years. For example, if an artifact is 2500 years old, the date for that artifact is about 500 BC +/- 100 years.

Historic documents can also provide dates. Documents from Mesopotamia and Egypt contain a list of kings, the lengths of their reigns, and various other datable information. The date of the reign of certain kings has been determined by dating artifacts associated with documents from their reign. If documents from the reign of a king date to 2300 BC, then the other kings on the list can be dated roughly as well by adding and subtracting the lengths of their reigns. In addition, kings in Mesopotamia and pharoahs in Egypt often named years after a celestial event. For example, the year could be called "the year of the solar eclipse that occurred in harvest season." Astromers can determine when solar eclipses and other celestial events took place in the past thereby allowing historians to figure out the year in which a document (and associated artifacts) was created.

Documents can also provide dates based on the study of the characteristics of the writing they contain. Writing style and the use of words change over time and are different in various places. If you have ever looked at your grandmother's handwriting, listened to how your father talks, noticed how a person from Europe writes numbers, or seen the Chinese alphabet, you can see how these differences still exist today. Scholars of ancient writing systems can study documents and tell how they relate to a collection of documents and thus tell when and where a document comes from. For example, the figure below traces the evolution over time of the symbol for the word 'beer' in Sumerian and Akkadian script. If a document contained the word for beer written as it is in box 'B' , it could be assigned to the time period in which that form of the symbol was in use.



Dates from all of these sources and others (see Knapp 1988:6-10) are combined to create a framework of dates in which archaeological and historical discussions can take place. But all of these sources are inexact. Relative dates do not tell how much older or younger one object is in relation to another. Radiocarbon dates have a margin of error of at least 50 years. Historic documents do not always reflect events accurately--the Mesopotamian king list gives some reigns as lasting hundreds of years--and celestial events can occur in more than one year at the same time making it difficult if not impossible to determine the specific year an eclipse or other event occured. In short, the dates within a chronology should not be thought of as perfect and scholars often do not agree on chronological dates. In fact, there are three different chronologies (high, middle, and low) for both Mesopotamia and Egypt. The chronology for this class follows the middle chronology most closely.

Besides the dates in a chronology, there is also an archaeological component. When a site is excavated, archaeologists have to have a way of placing the materials they find within the larger chronology for the region. One way to do this is through obtaining radiocarbon and other absolute dates, but it is not possible to date every single object in this way. It is time consuming and expensive. Therefore, for each period there is a set of materials that is considered characteristic or diagnostic of that period that allow archaeologists to discuss the relationship of one site to another. Usually, the diagnostic set of artifacts consists primarily of pottery. Pottery sherds are the most abundant artifacts found at sites in Mesopotamia and Egypt during the periods we are studying in this class. The type of clay used in pottery production, the method of production, and the designs on pottery change over time and across regions. Changes in the type and distribution of pottery across a region are often used by archaeologists to distinguish between different periods.

Other artifacts are also considered diagnostic:

Many objects, then, can make up a characteristic set of objects for a period, however many of the ways of describing these artifacts are qualitative and therefore open to debate. The style of a particular piece of art cannot be entirely quantitatively determined. Also, ratios of different types of artifacts, like pottery forms, can indicate functional as well as chronological differences. Fitting a site or assemblage of artifacts into the larger chronological framework requires looking for the best fit and not a definitive date.

Now you must go to Chronology Part 2. (click on the file chron2.htm)

In conclusion, it is important to remember the dates given in the chronology above, but it is also important to remember the interpretive basis of the chronology. These dates have been chosen for the purposes of this class because we believe the data from various sites and historical documents best fits this chronology.



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